Circa early June 2019.... so long ago now it seems. A friend of mine told me about a paddle course in Fort Assiniboine, Alberta. I was so excited to jump on board.
Rewind a few months prior, I had been on the phone with one of my friends who is an avid outdoorsmen and a great paddler telling him about my trip to Quetico to come that August…. I was rather confident that I could handle a class 1 rapid, even though I never had. In my ignorant confidence I proclaimed my faith in myself to figure it out if I hit rapids. I had paddled before in the bay around our cottage, you know. He laughs and says Alice, don’t be stupid. You need a course! No truer words could be spoken I would soon learn!
June came around and at this point I had camped lots before but never in that area, and not having stayed in a tent by myself! Note Fort Assiniboine is grizzly country. But my friend and her husband were gonna be there soon in a tent near by, so I’d be ok, right?
The drive up to Fort Assinboine is about 275 kms from where I was living at the time, and quite a lovely drive really. The wilderness in this part of Alberta is different than where I grew up in Ontario. There isn’t as many lakes, not even close. There are no rocks, but there is this big blue sky and ranches mixed in. Make no mistake, there is beautiful wilderness in the heart of Alberta north of Edmonton. Of course this area is distinct from the mountains, and from the more south and central regions of this prairie Province.
After my lovely drive, I arrived at the unserviced, self registration community campground not quite at Fort Assiniboine but close by. I first met Scott, a local plumber who helps out with this company called Nature Alive run by Dale and Colleen. I enjoyed chatting with him while I scouted an area and set up my little tent. For this scenario I used my weird tent that opens up like a slinky. It takes two seconds to unslinky it, reslinking it back together in its twisty way is not so simple. For the record, I’m a weird one. I own more than one tent. In fact I bet I own more tents than most women own shoes! A tent buffet. All girls should have one!
Not long after the tents were up, the instructor showed up with a truck towing a rack of canoes! I was getting eager and quite excited. My friends would be along later.
Once a few of the students arrived, the instructor Dale advised we would go do a sneak peak lesson at a pond. The pond was literally a dugout filled with water. But me loving water and being outside, good enough!!! It’s late spring, it’s evening, and coming towards sunset, it wasn’t hard to appreciate the moment. This was no Lake Superior, or Athabasca River, but it was paddling on the water - and for that moment, it was perfect!
The purpose of this exercise was to get us students in a canoe and for the instructor to assess our skills, I think. And that was my first eye opener that I didn’t know how to paddle. Do you know how many different strokes there are to paddle a canoe with any kind of skill or efficiency? Cross draw, beaver slap, river - J, lake - J, stern pry, and draw stroke. It took a bit just for me to get my lake J turned into a river J! I enjoyed getting some one on one coaching from Scott as he corrected my J! And I just loved being outside with this group of people having a fun time. The skill levels varied but it was fun. And Dale is an enthusiastic instructor.
After a quick evening paddle we headed back to camp. This would be the very first time I ever slept in a tent alone! Even though I was at a campground with a handful of people I was nervous. But I got through it. Thanks to a travel trailer in the park making such a racket with its boombox most of the night I knew no bear would come near so I slept ok the first night.
The next morning we were up early and headed back to the pond to learn how to do some fancy things like figure 8s and learn all those fancy strokes: cross draw, stern pry, draw stroke, river J! By afternoon we were now ready to head for the river. Excited yet, Oh I so am!!!
The crew drove down to the bridge at Fort Assiniboine. You may have read one of my other blogs about my trip down the Athabasca River where I land at this very spot (about a year later). At the bridge we got a quick lesson about river safety and how to read rapids. Dale is very good at using beach sand and a stick as a lesson board! We learned all the parts of the canoe, how to tie our throw bags, all the good stuff.
The course then gets into how the currents run, how dangerous a canoe is. I.e. if you spill, you get the heck out of the way because a runaway canoe in a current like that would hit you like a semi truck. We learned important things like never try to stand up in the middle of the river if you spill. You back float until you reach a spot where your derriere hits the bottom then you can stand up and get out. We heard some stories about river rescues that weren’t so happy endings. You know, getting a real appreciation for the responsibility that comes with taking on a river in a canoe. My initial ignorance thinking I didn’t need a paddle course is exactly the kind of thing that causes problems. I am fortunate I had someone set me straight so I could humble myself to knowing I need to learn some things!
We had so much fun learning how to ferry across a river, catch eddies and how to rescue each other. It actually happened where we really had to do it, under controlled circumstances of course. We were at this one spot practising, where there is a certain eddy. What happens as your canoe enters the eddy it wants to try and pull you a certain way. A normal reaction to that is to try and counteract that pull by shifting your weight but in doing so you can flip the canoe. So the right way to do this is when the canoe catches that current you just lean in and let it take you. But it happened twice where people tried this current but as they entered they tried to compensate. Ultimately flipping the canoe. In one instance one of the girls flipped her canoe and floated quite a ways down the chilly river before her derriere hit bottom and the instructor was able to get her safely back into a canoe. She handled it very well though, but it scared the heck out of me to watch how fast that river moves! To be honest to this day I haven’t tried that particular eddie, and I avoid anything that looks like it. I should go see Dale and Colleen again to practice that one! The Athabasca River moves fast, it’s deep and in some parts quite wide. So it commands respect!
The two day course went on learning all these fancy manevouvers, enjoying shore lunches. It was super fun. The one night that we went back to the campground I really felt our hard work in my burning arm!! Probably a product of having poor stroke posture. Practice, practice, right?
After two days of learning and practising, the last part of the course was a beautiful float about 20 kms down the river through some wonderful Alberta scenery. Nearby there is a Provincial Park called Sandhill, I highly recommend checking it out if you are ever in the area.
Let me tell you that course was a game changer for me. I left the course more confident because I had some new skills, but I also left the course with a much greater respect for the power of a river. To this day I remain very skeptical about my skill level to read rapids. Something I will continue to develop. The following year I took a refresher course with Nature Alive and had it not been for Covid, I’d have taken another one! My goal now is to take the same course on different rivers. It’s one thing to take a course like that somewhere you are familiar with but by changing up the location you can be sure you have the confidence in any terrain.
As I write this blog it is now 2022, many of the Covid restrictions are relaxed. So courses will be back on my annual agenda to keep me prepared for the unexpected.
As I left Fort Assiniboine that Sunday every river bridge I crossed became another adventure to add to my bucket list. This year I will be focusing on back country trips in Ontario but make no mistake if I get a couple free days in Alberta - I will be looking for another paddle adventure. You never know, I might just meet up with Nature Alive for another course sometime in the future! I really enjoy river trips, and I look forward to a lifetime of learning and enjoying much more of them. I certainly expect that as the years go on, as long as I am able, I will be looking for the next place to explore. Canada is full of opportunities for adventure… and I don’t want to miss out on any of it!
If you are looking for a paddle course in Canada check out Paddle Canada! :)